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American Forces Press Service

Africa Command Works to Become Effective

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2007 – The stand-up of U.S. Africa Command is a testament to the growing geopolitical importance of the continent. But while the command is operational, it has a long way to go to be effective, Pentagon officials said.

Africa Command, which went operational Oct. 1, has to gather together all the various Defense Department missions in Africa before the command is fully operational on Oct. 1, 2008, Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said.

The unified combatant command will absorb missions on the continent formerly conducted by European, Central and Pacific commands.

“We have to conduct the missions and ensure we don’t do any harm to existing relationships that are really very positive,” Whelan said. “We don’t want that to fall through the cracks as we learn to ride this new bicycle.”

While the new command is taking over direction of already existing missions, officials will continue to strengthen and refine the structure and organizational elements of the command. Africa Command will be different from other combatant commands because the needs on the continent are so much different. The headquarters will ultimately have 800 servicemembers, civilians and contractors.

The U.S. military is not a large player in U.S. government efforts in Africa, but military forces can respond to humanitarian crises, whether natural or manmade. The American military pulsed capabilities and supplies to Goma, Zaire, in the early 1990s to help relieve a refugee crisis following genocide in Rwanda, and American aircraft airlifted African Union peacekeepers to Darfur, Sudan.

Africa Command will have a different make-up than other combatant commands. Interagency contributions will be key to the command. With that in mind, the deputy to the commander for civil-military activities will be a senior Foreign Service official that is equivalent to a three-star general.

“I think relative to other commands, Africa Command is a lot more interagency,” Whelan said. “I think we need to focus on what we’re trying to do on the ground and ensure we have the right skill to do the mission.”

The command must do this in such a way that it “links appropriately and in a supportive way with what State, the Agency for International Development, Treasury, Commerce, etc. are doing,” Whelan said.

The command has offered four senior executive service positions to non-defense agencies, Whelan said. The interagency people will be dispersed through the command, but it’s unclear now how many there ultimately will be.

“We need to hone in on critical areas where we need the knowledge from other agencies,” she said. “If we can get the knowledge at those critical points then the numbers don’t really matter.”

Whelan acknowledged that with the establishment of Africa Command there is a concern that the Defense Department is taking over missions of other agencies on the continent.

This is a particularly big issue in the non-governmental organization community. Within government, there is a fear that the U.S. Agency for International Development, the primary government foreign humanitarian aid provider, “would somehow become tainted, undermined or usurped by this process,” Whelan said.

“What we’re trying to emphasize is that while DoD has its mission, there are places where our mission -- doing the things that we do best -- intersects with those of other agencies,” she said. “It’s those crossroads where accidents occur. Those crossroads should have a traffic cop … with expertise in that area.”

In some cases, that expertise may come from a State Department person in Africa Command headquarters. In other cases, Treasury Department or USAID personnel may be better suited to provide the necessary expertise.

“We will stay in our lane. But because we imported this knowledge and expertise, we feel we will be better able to work with these other agencies,” Whelan said.

The exposure of military officers to the expertise of other agencies will help AFRICOM get off the ground. Military officers typically show up at a combatant command like this with little previous exposure to conditions on the ground.

“They are typically not subject matter experts,” she said. “There are only three foreign area officers who have specialized knowledge of Africa in all of European Command.”

The classic example is of a major coming in and suggesting that when a ship makes a visit to an African port that Seabees can go out and dig wells, Whelan said.

“It’s not that easy. First off, digging a well alone is tough work,” she said. “Second, there may be cultural reasons that limit where you can place the well.

“Point is, that the young major may not know that, but someone at the headquarters would be able to point him to someone who would have that expertise,” she continued. “Having these people in the command will hopefully lower the learning curve for our military folks, making our military people that much more effective.”

Africa Command headquarters is in Germany for now, but the intent is to have Gen. Ward E. “Kip” Ward, the organization’s first commander, on the continent soon so he can be effective in doing his job, Whelan said.

Officials plan to have elements of the headquarters distributed in different regions of the continent, Whelan said. The African continent is the second-largest in the world, with a population in excess of 900 million people divided among 53 nations. Problems and culture in the north are different from the south, and the same is true of the eastern, western and central regions. Dividing the headquarters will allow the command to avoid trying to place the same template on all sections of the continent, she said.

“This will create challenges for communications, but the corporate world has been playing around with distributed headquarters models for a number of years and have been pretty successful,” she said. “If corporations can do it, why can’t we?”

Another value of having a headquarters entity in different regions is that Africa Command will be able to examine challenges from a regional perspective and interface with whatever regional aspect is coming to the fore.

The command is committed to supporting the Africa Stand-by Force, which is how the African Union is working to handle security problems in the future, she said.

“We want to position ourselves so we can best be able to support that effort,” Whelan said. “Since that effort is distributed around the region, we feel we need to be distributed as well.”

Private organizations have provided billions of dollars in aid to Africa. The command wants to work with these non-governmental organizations, but there are challenges in this area, as well, Whelan said.

“NGOs often have an allergy to working with the military,” she said. “But in crisis situations you have to work together. So the question becomes how do we respect their space but have a mechanism for a dialogue so we can exchange information, talk about best practices, develop rules of the road in an environment where the NGOs don’t feel they’ve compromised themselves by entering the AFRICOM world?”

Africa Command officials are speaking with organizations and have proposed developing a “neutral ground” called the Africa Civil-Military Forum. The command is working with organizations to flesh out this idea. “We need to build the contacts now so in an actual crisis it’s not the first time you are meeting each other,” Whelan said.

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